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Rice University’s Ravi Sheth receives Hertz Fellowship

Outgoing student body president plans to study systems biology at Columbia

By Jade Boyd
Rice News Staff

Ravi_Sheth_webRice University senior Ravi Sheth, a bioengineering major who just finished his term as president of the Rice Student Association, has received a prestigious 2015 Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellowship Award for graduate education. Sheth, who has worked for the past four years in the laboratory of Rice synthetic biologist Jeff Tabor, said he plans to study systems biology at Columbia University.

Hertz Fellowships, which include five years of financial support for graduate school in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences, are among the most prestigious and competitive in the nation. Sheth, one of 12 recipients announced this week, was chosen from a field of more than 800 applicants after a grueling selection process that included both a technical interview that tested applicants’ knowledge of broad scientific principles as well as an in-depth second interview.

Sheth was at work in the lab of Tabor, assistant professor of bioengineering and of biochemistry and cell biology, when he got the official notification.

“I was in complete disbelief,” he said. “I left what I was doing in the lab and walked across campus to grab an iced coffee, and on the walk back I actually started to absorb what this really meant and how prestigious the award really is.”

Providing fellows with the freedom to pursue their own innovative ideas as doctoral students is a hallmark of the Hertz program. The fellowships are designed to provide financial independence so that fellows are not bound by traditional research funding restrictions or the funded projects of any faculty member.

“The overarching question I want to explore is: What are the design rules for engineering communities of bacteria for useful purposes?” Sheth said. “The first real applications for this field are just beginning, and I’m deeply excited to have the freedom of the Hertz Fellowship to be creative and innovative in pushing it forward.”

In part, because of the work he’s done with Tabor, Sheth said he is interested in developing quantitative frameworks to better understand and engineer the probiotic bacteria that inhabit human bodies and help keep them healthy.

“I’m interested in using the tools of synthetic biology to exploit these microbial communities for useful purposes.” Sheth said. ”Long term, I want to work as a professor in the university environment.”

Sheth credits his work with Tabor for opening his mind to the idea of graduate school and a career in academia.

“My freshman year I would have scoffed at the idea of spending even more time in school,” he said. “But I think my research experience in Jeff Tabor’s lab for the past four years has really convinced me that academia is the best environment to have lots of freedom, to be creative and to work on interesting and impactful problems.”

Tabor said Sheth has been a transformational force in his lab, beginning with their first meeting when Sheth was still a freshman.

“Rather than simply absorbing information, Ravi volleyed back with insightful and probing questions and altogether new ideas,” Tabor said. “After about 10 minutes, I ran out to grab my best Ph.D. student to see how far we could push the science. I would later realize that my first meeting with Ravi was a transformative moment for my research program.”

Tabor said Sheth has worked on and initiated a number of new lines of research, co-authored several peer-reviewed research publications, co-authored nine research grant proposals, including five that were funded, and has at times led graduate students and even postdoctoral research fellows on research projects.

Tabor said Sheth is “a once-in-a-lifetime talent in terms of intelligence, potential for a successful research career, and leadership abilities. It is almost impossible to imagine that Ravi will not make transformative contributions to society in his life.”